Cotton Academy Elementary School teacher Adam Rodriguez works with his students on a literature assignment.
Cotton Academy Elementary School teacher Adam Rodriguez works with his students on a literature assignment. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Some teachers in three San Antonio-area school systems will see their salaries bumped by thousands of dollars thanks to a state program that increases pay for high-performing teachers at rural campuses and schools with low-income students.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced Thursday that the San Antonio Independent School District, the School of Science and Technology-San Antonio, and the School of Science and Technology Discovery in Leon Valley have been approved to join 26 other school systems participating in the state teacher incentive allotment. The fourth school system approved Thursday was Donna ISD in the Rio Grande Valley.

Under the 2019 school finance reform law that advanced as House Bill 3, districts will get between $3,000 and $32,000 in additional funding for every teacher classified as recognized, exemplary, or master by the school systems, according to the TEA. The goal behind the allotment is to provide the most effective teachers in high-needs schools with a way to earn up to six-figure salaries. Districts will receive more money for designated teachers at rural or economically disadvantaged campuses, and at least 90% of the funds must go toward teacher compensation on the campus where the designated teacher works.

About 4,600 teachers in Texas will earn a collective $43 million in additional income, according to the TEA. Each of the four new school systems received a one-year preliminary approval of their teacher incentive allotment application because the coronavirus pandemic precluded them from submitting all the data the state typically uses to evaluate applicants, such as scores from state standardized exams that were canceled in 2020. They will submit additional data to the state from this school year and could be approved to participate in the program for multiple years.

“We stand by our teachers whose talents have diversified and grown during the pandemic, and whose classroom leadership will help students recover from any learning loss they encounter,” SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said in a statement. “This is a pivotal time to make sweeping change to the teaching profession, and we are so appreciative that the State of Texas is allowing us to be part of this moment.” 

It would be difficult for most SAISD teachers to earn six figures, according to the 2020-21 pay scale on the district’s website. Teachers with 20 or more years of experience who earn the highest teacher incentive pay of $32,000 would be in the $90,000 range, excluding any additional stipends they may receive for extra duties or teaching certain subjects.

Each school district or charter school is responsible for developing its own data-driven methods to rate teachers as recognized, exemplary, or master teachers. The highest rating a teacher can receive is master, which could result in up to an extra $32,000 a year if the educator works in a high-needs school. The TEA hired Texas Tech University to review and evaluate the methods by which school districts will evaluate and designate their teachers.

SAISD’s evaluation methods rely on standardized test scores and the amount of time teachers spend with students, school board president Patti Radle said. Research has shown that students living in poverty perform better academically if they spend additional time in the classroom. Roughly 90% of SAISD’s 46,000 students are considered low income.

“This makes a real difference in what we’re able to do for teachers,” she said. “It is a tremendous opportunity for teachers to make considerably more than what they’re making now.”

Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, criticized the teacher incentive allotment as “merit-based pay,” a controversial method of increasing pay for teachers whose students perform better on standardized tests. She said the pandemic has made the “many corners of our communities” more aware of “how unnecessary” state standardized exams are.

“The narrative around standardized testing has really been propelled forward, and then to have a program like this that essentially creates a system largely based on standardized testing seems very out of touch with what our communities know to be true, which is that our students are brilliant, creative, and intuitive young people that a standardized test can’t even begin to measure,” Lopez said.

Radle acknowledged that test scores are part of how teachers will be evaluated in this program, but she said that’s just a piece of the process. Teachers also have to spend more time with students each week, and their students have to show progress.

“It’s measuring the teacher as much as it is measuring the student,” she said. “It can’t just be what scores kids get on a test and has to be looked at in terms of improvement.”

Lopez argued that the program is unsustainable because Texas never established a permanent funding mechanism to finance the allotment and the state has a history of slashing public school funding when the state budget needs to be cut. In 2011, Texas legislators cut $5 billion from public education funding in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

“It is a large amount of money that is actually going to benefit a very small percentage of teachers,” she said. “What is really needed is instead of raising the ceiling, raising the floor.”

Lopez said the problem with teacher pay is a “compression issue” in which new teachers earn a few thousand dollars a year less than teachers with decades of experience. For example, an SAISD teacher with one year of experience starts at $53,400, while a teacher with 29 years of experience starts at $60,307 a year. The union supports increasing pay for all teachers, regardless of their status.

The three local school systems aren’t the first in San Antonio to join the allotment. The TEA last year approved Somerset ISD and Harmony Science Academy San Antonio, a charter school with three campuses in San Antonio, to be part of the initial rollout of the incentive program.

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.